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Manning the observation post

Need an education in the human condition? Try a parking lot.

There are many situations in which, with close observation, we have an opportunity to learn something about people, and about our society … if we are prone to less than tidy abstractions.

There are the classics: stressful situations, dangerous situations, situations in which compassion is called for, those in which courage and stamina are required, those wherein love and care should prevail. They are tests and we reveal character by how we respond.

And, there are others — less extreme, yet revelatory nonetheless.

I have two favorites.

I believe you can learn things about people by watching how they behave in the grocery store and the grocery store parking lot, and by observing them in restaurants and cafes — noting how they treat those whose job it is to tend to their needs.

Try this sometime: when you motor to the grocery store, park your vehicle where you can see as many people as possible as they park their vehicles and head for the building, or as they leave the store and return to their cars or trucks.

A surprising number of people are talking to themselves. No doubt many of them are practicing conversations they intend to have later, with spouses, children, employers, government agents sent to confiscate their firearms and hustle them off to socialist-run work camps. Many are probably addressing their imaginary friends whose feedback is, as we all know, reassuringly positive and uplifting.

Even more folks are talking on cell phones (I have seen many who talk on the cell phone as they drive into the lot, as they exit their car, and as they walk into the building; they are still on the phone when they leave the store and return to the car.) Inside the building, pay close heed to those who are talking (most often loudly) on their cell phones — especially the geeks with the wireless sets strapped to their ears. Listen to what they are saying; just short of one-hundred percent of the time, the conversation stays squarely centered on trivia, on nonsense. The text of their lives, perhaps? But, the intriguing thing is the notion that the dialogue must be shared. What kind of callous and shallow egoism are we dealing with here?

Then there are the people with kids. The ones who are most interesting to watch are the parents at the extremes — and there are many of them, some subservient to their offspring, others abusive and harsh. The young ’uns tended by the indulgent parents are, no doubt, “gifted and talented,” imbued with all manner of remarkable characteristics; you can see how the kids have hijacked the relationship as you watch mommy and/or daddy deal with them. The parents are like museum curators handling an ancient Greek urn. Many of these youngsters (raised under the banner of unearned self-esteem) will grow up with a major-league sense of entitlement and will, in many cases, exit adolescence barely able to deal with the reality of their ordinariness. Mommy will probably accompany them to a job interview 18 to 20 years down the road, just as she now accompanies them to school to ensure everyone there embraces her illusion — that little Jimmy or Janie is extraordinary, a truly rare gift to the universe. Even if little Jimmy The Magnificent is the kid on the skateboard or bike who forces the elderly shopper off the sidewalk.

Then, there are the clods for whom kids are nuisance baggage. You’ve seen them: their kids have that thousand-yard stare in their eyes. The shadow of abuse hovers above the surface of every moment and, occasionally, that abuse comes to full and ugly flower in public. It is a shame one of the fools talking on their cell phone doesn’t call the cops and social services.

Parking lot decorum?

How about the lunker who parks his massive SUV so close to other cars that a door cannot be opened? Then there’s the goof who takes up two parking spaces or, in another civic-minded move, parks in the crosswalk or the fire lane and waits for his or her passenger to finish shopping.

How about Clem, who blows his nose on the asphalt and spits on the sidewalk? That’s a clear sign of sophistication, wouldn’t you say?

How about the folks who wheel a shopping cart into the lot, put their bags in the car, then shove the cart into another parking spot, or into an adjoining vehicle?

I especially like to watch folks who scratch themselves in special spots or who, in a fever, remove undergarments that have become tightly crammed in damp crevices. You get to see plenty of this in the parking lot. Ecce homo.

Have you taken the time to notice how many people hold doors open for others?

Does it matter anymore?

The point: with little effort, we can witness acts of stunning self-indulgence and arrested development, all reflective of a near-total insulation from anything that exists outside the skin of the individual. And we wonder why our culture is coming unraveled.


I admire people who work in restaurants and cafes. In particular waitresses and waiters.

There are some damned good ones hereabouts.

Take Cheryl, for example — the best breakfast/lunch establishment waitress in town. Cheryl knows her work and does it with unremitting energy and enthusiasm (and a wonderfully unique fashion sense). This is a woman with kids to support; she pulls a mighty big wagon and does so with great, good humor. Often, she works the entire room at breakfast, occasionally serving a full house. She is gracious, friendly and businesslike. She knows her regular customers and tends to their needs before they ask.

Wanna bet there are customers who act like jerks with her, just because they can?

Wanna bet some snoot arrives now and then who thinks the seven dollars they spent on breakfast or lunch entitles them to behave like the lord of the manor?

Wanna bet there are goofs out there who receive excellent service and leave a pauper’s tip?

The same holds true at the fanciest dinner spots. My youngest daughter works several nights a week at such an establishment. Ivy knows her work well, too. She graduated from the most prestigious academy of dramatic arts in the English-speaking world, spent a number of years in the business and finally fled LA to return to her home in the mountains, to get married and raise a family. So, now, she applies her considerable acting skills at another noble trade: waitperson.

Wanna bet she meets bozos who believe they are better than those who serve them their meals, who believe they have the right to belittle waiters and waitresses, who fancy themselves clever and thus obliged to levy their cheeseball humor on the staff?

Wanna bet that Ivy gets shortchanged on the tip by a smug and parsimonious diner?

It’s a good bet.

Our social behavior is growing weaker by the day. As we retreat further into the cocoon of technology and “social” media (which often, ironically, increases the distance between us), as we tune to only those information sources that reinforce our existing ideas and prejudices, as we fall more and more out of touch with the notions of civility and reason, we act out our deficiencies in public. For all who are interested to see.

Fortunately, the observation posts noted above also produce contrary evidence. There are examples that show that some of us still retain a sense of the importance of the “out there,” a sense of moderation when it comes to our kids and their behavior, a sense of the importance of conduct conducive to community and of the need for connection, one to the other, regardless of “station” or occupation, via simple courtesies.

I intend to maintain my spot in the observation post at these locations and others, checking the behavior of my fellow citizens and, as often, my own.

I will need something to eat while I am on duty.

I noted a recipe on Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” the other night that was purported to be great for those attempting to lose weight. Some might argue I need to shed a few pounds, but the item also seemed to me to provide a major dose of ingredients supportive of things like good vision and mental acuity — the social observer’s primary tools. It’s a vitamin and mineral fiesta, resting on a base of complex carbohydrates.

I toast a thick slice of whole grain bread, cut from a boule. I open a can of Norwegian bristling sardines, packed in olive oil. I drain half the oil into a small bowl and dispose of the remainder of the oil in the grease can.

I mince some fresh parsley and toss it into the oil in the dish. I add a splash of sherry vinegar and some fresh-ground black pepper. I whisk the mix into an emulsion.

I put the sardines into another bowl, mash them and add the oil and vinegar mix.

I take half a ripe avocado and mush it on the toasted bread. I sprinkle the avocado with a bit of Kosher salt then add a thick layer of the sardine mix.

Simple as that.

I think I can eat it while I sit in my car at the grocery store parking lot.

On second thought, it might be a bit messy. I’ll ask my imaginary friends what they think. And I will say “please” when I ask.